What is Daredevil, really? Is it a superhero show? Is it bloody torture porn? Is it a complex metaphor about religious guilt, Catholicism, and the impulse to “save” others by persuading them of their inner morality? Is it a lesser entry in the Marvel franchise weighed down by thudding pacing, unconscionably wooden dialogue, an unimaginative concept, and one-dimensional characters?
You might ask yourself these questions while watching season two, which was released in its entirety on Netflix Friday, and ponder why Daredevil, at this point in time, seems so much less inspired than Jessica Jones, which came out seven months after its Marvel universe sister show in 2015 but seemed light years ahead of it in vision and execution. While JJ was a gloomy, noir-ish detective show with powers thrown into the mix, it felt like a superhero show for its time, exploring issues like the meaning of consent, the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the dynamics of power in same-sex relationships. Daredevil, by contrast, is … about a man with a savior complex who wrestles with the morality of violence, which the show portrays in gruesome, prolonged, visceral ways. In other words, it’s most superhero dramas, but clunkier, albeit with explicit, often fascinating nods to theology thrown into the mix.
Season one offered a simple enough origin story for the vigilante hero known as the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is a lawyer blinded in childhood by an accident involving radioactive chemicals that simultaneously heightened his other senses, particularly his hearing. His father, a boxer, was killed by a local gangster for refusing to lose a fight he was ordered to fix, after which young Matt was trained in martial arts by Stick (Scott Glenn), one of two important mentors in his life (the other is his priest). The first season leads toward his fully becoming Daredevil, as he fights a vicious local crime boss, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), acquires a costume that doubles as body armor, and fights a variety of crooks, mobsters, and ninjas, nearly getting killed an exhausting number of times.
Cartoonish violence suffused the first season, and continues to define the second. If Netflix has a single problem with its dramas, it’s that they pad out 30 minutes of television into 50-minute episodes; on Daredevil, this means that fight scenes become feats of endurance, forcing the audience to watch a vulnerable human hero being pulverized over and over again. Season two doubles down by introducing the Punisher (Jon Bernthal), the series’s most compelling character to date, but also one who kills and maims with alacrity, and who amplifies the ferocity exponentially. When Irish gangsters are shot, blood explodes out of their bullet wounds in slow-motion spurts. One stabs another in the eye with a screwdriver, and twists it as you hear his skull crack open. The camera pans out slowly to reveal that we’ve been watching a scene unfold through a gaping bullet hole in a corpse. Matt, as Daredevil, finds a freezer full of Mexican cartel members slung up on meat hooks, their intestines spilling out of their bodies.
By the time a character’s tortured with an electric drill, which penetrates his foot as his bones and muscle tissue spill out, it’s clear that this is torture porn of an unmistakably Catholic variety. The holes forced into hands and feet. The way the camera lingers on a crucifix above Matt’s bed in a flashback to his childhood illness. The obsessive focus on his physical scars, and on the ritual maiming of the show’s heroes. But it’s also violence that’s sexually charged, and riddled with fears about emasculation (in one scene, Punisher chains Matt to a wall and repeatedly refers to him as “Red,” as if he were Joan Holloway offering coffee). By contrast, the show is skittish to the point of awkward about its hero’s sex life, or complete lack thereof.
JJ was open and unapologetic about its character’s sexual encounters; Daredevil is painfully chaste—a kiss in a rainstorm is visualized as an adolescent, hearts-and-flowers fantasy, while a flashback scene of Matt making love to his college girlfriend, Elektra (Elodie Yung) consists almost entirely of shots of Elektra shaking her hair in circles. (This isn’t sex so much as a shampoo ad.) Part of the problem is Matt’s lack of chemistry with his ostensible love interest, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), but it’s also the fact that the only kind of lust the show is compelled to explore or act upon involves blood.
In many ways, Daredevil seems to represent the paradox of modern entertainment, where sex is taboo but violence is cheap, and readily acceptable even on network television, let alone via Netflix. (It’s telling that Marvel mandated that Jessica Jones not feature nudity, or the word “fuck.”) But the problem also seems to point to a lack of clear vision for what the show is, or could be. Daredevil was conceived by Drew Goddard, who wrote the first two episodes of season one, but stepped down a year before it premiered, and was replaced as showrunner by Steven S. DeKnight. For season two, the writers Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez replaced DeKnight, with Goddard continuing in an advisory role. (All 14 directors credited for the show on IMDB are male; all but one of the show’s 21 writers (Ruth Fletcher) are too, which may be why all of the eight episodes I’ve seen of season two so far fail the Bechdel Test.)
This swapping in and out of bosses might be fairly common in television, but most prestige dramas (which Daredevil and Netflix clearly aspire to emulate) share one thing: a creator with a singular concept. Daredevil’s messiness is no accident—its dramatic inconsistency, patchy writing, spotty visuals, and maddening pacing clearly seem to point to a case of too many cooks. Jessica Jones, by contrast, owes its psychological richness and narrative depth to its creator, Melissa Rosenberg, who’s spent much of her career fighting what she describes as a “boy’s club mentality” in TV’s writing rooms. What’s clear from watching Daredevil is that this mentality isn’t just bad for women—it’s bad for television.
Many will argue that Daredevil is simply a difficult character: Being tortured by Catholic guilt isn’t quite as compelling a character trait as having your entire family murdered in front of you (distressingly common in comic books). (Plus, his costume is dorky.) But it’s also all too easy for studio bosses and writers to take existing properties, add sophisticated visuals, and shoehorn in excessive brutality to add edge. It’s easy, and as Daredevil proves, it makes for remarkably lackluster entertainment.